There are three chapters in the story of organization development: the original version of the 1960s and 1970s, the extensions and modifications to the original approach in the 1980s and 1990s, and the new look at organization development of the 2000s.
The first chapter – the original version
Organization development emerged as the ‘OD’ movement in the 1960s. It was based on the strong humanistic values of its early founders, who wanted to improve the conditions of people’s lives in organizations by applying behavioural science knowledge. Its origins can be traced to the writings of behavioural scientists such as Lewin (1947, 1951) on group dynamics (the improvement of group processes through various forms of training, eg teambuilding, interactive skills training or T-groups) and change management. Other behavioural scientists included Maslow (1954), who produced his needs theory of motivation, Herzberg (Herzberg et al, 1957), who wrote about the motivation to work, and Argyris (1957), who emphasized the need to plan for integration and involvement. McGregor (1960)
produced his ‘Theory Y’, which advocated the recognition of the needs of both the organization and the individual on the basis that given the chance, people will not only accept but seek responsibility. Likert (1961) added his theory of supportive relationships.
The two founders of the organization development movement were Beckhard (1969), who probably coined the term, and Bennis (1969) who, according to Buchanan and Huczynski (2007: 575) described OD as a ‘truth, trust, love and collaboration approach’. Ruona and Gibson (2004: 53) explained that: ‘… early OD interventions can be categorized as primarily focusing on individuals and interpersonal relations. OD was established as a social philosophy that emphasized a long-term orientation, the applied behavioural sciences, external and process-oriented consultation, change managed from the top, a strong emphasis on action research and a focus on creating change in collaboration with managers.’
The assumptions and values of OD
The assumptions and values of OD as originally conceived were that:
- Most individuals are driven by the need for personal growth and development as long as their environment is both supportive and challenging.
- The work team, especially at the informal level, has great significance for feelings of satisfaction and the dynamics of such teams have a powerful effect on the behaviour of their members.
- OD programmes aim to improve the quality of working life of all members of the organization.
- Organizations can be more effective if they learn to diagnose their own strengths and weaknesses.
- Managers often do not know what is wrong and need special help in diagnosing problems, although the outside ‘process consultant’ ensures that decision making remains in the hands of the client.
The OD toolkit
OD during this time was practised predominantly by external consultants working with senior managers. Personnel specialists were not involved to any great extent. OD programmes consisted then of ‘interventions’ such as those listed below. These often feature in current programmes.
- Process consultation – helping clients to generate and analyse information that they can understand and, following a thorough diagnosis, act upon. The information will relate to organizational processes such as intergroup relations, interpersonal relations and communications.
- Change management – often using the techniques advocated by Lewin (1951), which consisted of processes of managing change by unfreezing, changing and freezing, and force-field analysis (analysing and dealing with the driving forces that affect transition to a future state).
- Action research – collecting data from people about process issues and feeding it back in order to identify problems and their likely causes. This can then be used as a basis for an action plan to deal with the problem.
- Survey feedback – a variety of action research in which data is systematically collected about the system through attitude surveys
and workshops, leading to action plans.
- Personal interventions – developing interpersonal skills through such processes as T-groups, transactional analysis, behaviour modelling and, a later method, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).
The second chapter – criticisms of the original version of OD and new approaches
The OD movement as originally conceived and practised was characterized by what Buchanan and Huczynski (2007: 559) called ‘quasi-religious values’, with some of the features of a religious movement. This, they claim, is one reason why it has survived as a concept in spite of the criticisms that began to be levelled at it in the 1980s. Weidner (2004: 39) wrote that: ‘OD was something that practitioners felt and lived as much as they believed’ (original emphasis).
One of the earliest critics was McLean (1981: 13), who asserted that:
It is becoming increasingly apparent that there exists a considerable discrepancy between OD as practiced and the prescriptive stances taken by many OD writers… The theory of change and change management which is the foundation of most OD programmes is based on over-simplistic generalizations which offer little specific guidance to practitioners faced with the confusing complexity of a real change situation.
Armstrong (1984: 113) commented that: ‘Organization development has lost a degree of credibility in recent years because the messianic zeal displayed by some practitioners has been at variance with the circumstances and real needs of the organization’. Burke (1995: 8) stated that ‘in the mid- 1970s, OD was still associated with T-groups, participative management and consensus, Theory Y, and self-actualization – the soft, human, touchyfeely kinds of activities’.
An even more powerful critic was Karen Legge (1995: 212) who commented that the OD rhetoric fitted the era of ‘flower power’ and that:
‘OD was seen on the one hand as a form of devious manipulation, and on the other as “wishy-washy” and ineffectual’. She noted ‘the relative lack of success of OD initiatives in effecting major and lasting cultural change, with the aim of generating commitment to new values in the relatively small number of organizations in which it was tried’ (ibid: 213) and produced the following devastating critique.
Source review A critique of organization development – Legge (1995: 213)
In order to cope with an increasingly complex and changing environment, many of the initiatives were, in retrospect, surprisingly inward looking, involving schemes of management development, work system design, attempts at participation, almost as a good in their own
right, without close attention as to how they were to deliver against market-driven organizational success criteria. The long-term nature of OD activities, together with difficulties in clearly establishing to sceptics their contribution to organizational success criteria (and within a UK culture of financial short-termism) rendered the initiatives at best marginal… and at worst to be treated with a cynical contempt.
The main criticisms of OD as noted by Marsh et al (2010: 143) were that it was: ‘Orientated to process and tools rather than results… where
techniques are considered to be ends in themselves rather than a means to deliver organizational performance’. However, during the 1980s and 1990s, attention was drawn to the concept of organizational or corporate culture – the pattern of values, norms, beliefs, attitudes and assumptions that may not have been articulated but that shape the ways in which people in organizations behave and get things done. This led to culture management, which aimed to achieve cultural change as a means of enhancing organizational capability. Culture change or management programmes start with an analysis of the existing culture, which may involve the use of a diagnostic such as the Organizational Culture Inventory devised by Cooke and Lafferty (1989). The desired culture is then defined – one that enables the organization to function effectively and achieve its strategic objectives. As a result, a ‘culture gap’ is identified that needs to be filled. This analysis of culture identifies behavioural expectations so that HR processes can be used to develop and reinforce them. This sounds easier than it really is. Culture is a complex notion that is often hard to define, and it is usually strongly embedded and therefore difficult to change. Culture management became a process in its own right but OD consultants also jumped on the bandwagon.
Other movements in this period that could be described as organization development activities (but again can exist as distinct entities) included total quality management (TQM) and quality circles. TQM aims to ensure that all activities within an organization happen in the way they have been planned in order to meet the defined needs of customers. Its approach is holistic – quality management is not a separate function to be treated in isolation, but is an integral part of all operations. Quality circles are groups of volunteers engaged in related work who meet regularly to discuss and propose ways of improving working methods under a trained leader.
Another approach more closely related to OD that emerged at this time was organizational transformation. This was defined by Cummins and Worley (2005: 752) as: ‘A process of radically altering the organization’s strategic direction, including fundamental changes in structures, processes and behaviours’.
Other holistic approaches to improving organizational capability that emerged in this period, which were not part of what was conventionally known as OD, included high performance working, high commitment management and high involvement management. This was also the time when performance management systems came to the fore. The further development of these systems in the 2000s led to a radically changed view on what constituted organization development.
The third chapter – changing the focus
The most significant change in the 2000s was the shift to a strategic perspective. As noted by Cummins and Worley (2005: 12), ‘Change agents have proposed a variety of large-scale or strategic-change models; each of these models recognizes that strategic change involves multiple levels of the organization and a change in its culture, is driven from the top by powerful executives, and has important effects on performance’. They also commented that the practice of organization development therefore went far beyond its humanistic origins.
There was also an increasing emphasis on associating organization design and organization development. Marsh et al (2010) proposed that
organization design and organization development need to be merged into one HR capability, with organization design taking precedence. They considered that this should all be brought in-house as a necessary part of the business model innovation process. But as they commented: ‘We do not believe that the field of organization development has passed its sell-by date. Far from it. It just needs to be repositioned as a HR capability’ (ibid: 143). However, Weidner (2004: 37) made the following more pessimistic comment
in the Organization Development Journal about OD: ‘Unfortunately, after sixty years – despite the best efforts and intentions of many talented people – OD finds itself increasingly at the margins of business, academe, and practice. The field continues to affirm its values, yet has no identifiable voice.’ OD ‘interventions’ still have a role to play in improving performance, but as part of an integrated business and HR strategy planned and implemented by HR in conjunction with senior management, with or without outside help.